Russia set the stage for a quick move to secure its hold on Ukraine’s rebel regions on Tuesday with new legislation that would allow the deployment of troops there as the West prepares to announce sanctions against Moscow amid fears of a full-scale invasion.
The new Russia bills, which are likely to be quickly rubber-stamped by the Kremlin-controlled parliament, came a day after President Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of the regions in eastern Ukraine. The legislation could be a pretext for a deeper move into Ukrainian territory as the US and its allies have feared.
Quickly after Putin signed the decree late Monday, convoys of armored vehicles were seen rolling across the separatist-controlled territories. It wasn’t immediately clear if they were Russian.
Russian officials haven’t yet acknowledged any troop deployments to the rebel east, but Vladislav Brig, a member of the separatist local council in Donetsk, told reporters that the Russian troops already had moved in, taking up positions in the region’s north and west.
Putin’s decision to recognize the rebel regions as independent states follows a nearly eight-year old separatist conflict that has killed more than 14,000 and devastated Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland called Donbas. The latest developments and move by Putin were met with reprehension by many countries around the world.
Ever since the conflict erupted weeks after Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula, Ukraine and its Western allies have accused Moscow of backing the separatists with troops and weapons, the charges it has denied, saying that Russians who fought in the east were volunteers. Putin’s move Monday formalizes Russia’s hold on the regions and gives it a free hand to deploy its forces there.
Draft bills that are set quickly sail through both houses of Russian parliament Tuesday, envisage military ties, including possible deployment of Russian military bases in the separatist regions.
Several senior lawmakers suggested Tuesday that Russia could recognize the rebel-held territories in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine in their original administrative borders, including the chunks of land currently under the Ukrainian control.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sought to project calm, telling the country in an address overnight: “We are not afraid of anyone or anything. We don’t owe anyone anything. And we won’t give anything to anyone.” His foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, would be in Washington on Tuesday to meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the State Department said.
“The Kremlin recognized its own aggression against Ukraine,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said on Twitter, describing Moscow’s move as a “New Berlin Wall” and urging the West to quickly slap Russia with sanctions.
The White House responded quickly, issuing an executive order to prohibit US investment and trade in the separatist regions, and additional measures — likely sanctions — were to be announced Tuesday. Those sanctions are independent of what Washington has prepared in the event of a Russian invasion, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
Other Western allies also said they were planning to announce sanctions.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Tuesday the UK will also introduce “immediate” economic sanctions against Russia, and warned that Putin is bent on “a full-scale invasion of Ukraine … that would be absolutely catastrophic.”
Johnson said Putin had “completely torn up international law” and British sanctions would target not just the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk but “Russian economic interests as hard as we can.”
EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said that “Russian troops have entered in Donbas,” adding that “I wouldn’t say that (it is) a fully-fledged invasion, but Russian troops are on Ukrainian soil” and the EU would decide on sanctions later on Tuesday.
Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak also said in a radio interview Tuesday he could confirm that Russian forces entered the territories, describing it as a violation of Ukraine’s borders and international law.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Tuesday said China would “continue to stay in engagement with all parties,” continuing to steer clear from committing to back Russia despite the close ties between Moscow and Beijing.
While Ukraine and the West said the Russian recognition of the rebel regions shatters a 2015 peace deal, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, challenged that, noting that Moscow isn’t a party to the Minsk agreement and arguing that it could still be implemented if Ukraine chooses so.
The 2015 deal that was brokered by France and Germany and signed in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, required Ukraine to offer a sweeping self-rule to the rebel regions in a diplomatic coup for Russia after a series of Ukrainian military defeats.
Many in Ukraine resented the deal as a betrayal of national interests and a blow to the country’s integrity, and its implementation has stalled.
Putin announced the move in an hourlong televised speech, blaming the US and its allies for the current crisis and describing Ukraine’s bid to join NATO as an existential challenge to Russia.
“Ukraine’s membership in NATO poses a direct threat to Russia’s security,” he said.
Russia says it wants Western guarantees that NATO won’t allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to join as members — and Putin said Monday that a simple moratorium on Ukraine’s accession wouldn’t be enough. Moscow has also demanded the alliance halt weapons deployments to Ukraine and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe — demands flatly rejected by the West.
Putin warned Monday that the Western rejection of Moscow’s demands gives Russia the right to take other steps to protect its security.
Sweeping through more than a century of history, Putin painted today’s Ukraine as a modern construct used by the West to contain Russia despite the neighbors inextricable links.
In a stark warning to Ukraine, the Russian leader charged that it has unfairly inherited Russia’s historic land granted to it by the Communist rulers of the Soviet Union and mocked its effort to shed the Communist past in a so-called “decommunization” campaign.
“We are ready to show you what the real decommunization would mean for Ukraine,” Putin added ominously in an apparent signal of his readiness to raise new land claims.
With an estimated 150,000 Russian troops massed on three sides of Ukraine, the US has warned that Moscow has already decided to invade. Still, President Joe Biden and Putin tentatively agreed to a meeting brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron in a last-ditch effort to avoid war.
Macron’s office said Biden and Putin had “accepted the principle of such a summit,” to be followed by a broader meeting that would include other “relevant stakeholders to discuss security and strategic stability in Europe.”
If Russia moves in, the meeting will be off, but the prospect of a face-to-face summit resuscitated hopes in diplomacy to prevent a conflict that could devastate Ukraine and cause huge economic damage across Europe, which is heavily dependent on Russian energy.
Tensions have continued to fly high in eastern Ukraine, with more shelling reported along the tense line of contact between the rebels and Ukrainian forces. Ukraine’s military said two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and another 12 were wounded by shelling over the last 24 hours. It has rejected the rebel claims of shelling residential areas and insisted that Ukrainian forces weren’t returning fire.